2019 Fellows Shout-out Series: Maakwe Cumanzala

  • Posted on: 5 July 2020
  • By: minnesotangos

MINN is proud to announce that our 2019 cohort of Fellows are graduating (already!) These ten incredible individuals represent important voices and perspectives in Minnesota's international development community, and we're excited to see what they accomplish next. Follow along as we highlight the graduating 2019 Fellows in our Fellows Shout-Out blog series:


When I applied to be a MINN fellow, I didn’t think I would be accepted because I had just graduated from college and had little experience in international development. I also didn’t have an NGO nor was I directly working for one. I still applied because I wanted to connect with people doing the work and figured the worst possible outcome would be the same as if I hadn’t applied. As an aspiring development economist, I know that there is no point in coming up with mathematical theories to solve problems if you discount the people affected by the problems you are trying to solve. Being a MINN fellow has helped me accomplish some goals - being a part of a supportive community of like-minded people and running a project.

At the 2019 MINN Summit, I met Stephanie Kimou. She is now one of my role models. Her keynote on decolonizing development inspired me to refocus on why I wanted to get into this field in the first place. I am Zimbabwean and come from a marginalized tribe (baTonga). I have seen how “aid” and development work is useful in alleviating poverty. However, I have also seen how easy it is for the work to give communities the illusion that it is empowering them while strengthening the poverty cycles they are stuck in. As a MINN fellow, I have engaged in conversations about this with other fellows and people in the international development community. I am still in search of the answer to how we can do this work more effectively but I am grateful to have been a part of this fellowship so that I could narrow down my focus. Through Stephanie, I joined the Black Women in Development (BWiD) network which has been the most reenergizing group to be a part of on Facebook. It is empowering to know that I am not alone in my search.

My other goal as a MINN fellow was to try to give back to my community, because on top of the grief everyone is facing in the world, there are still systems of oppression that have grounded the baTonga community and many other tribal minorities generations behind. I was curious to know what students in elementary schools in Binga, Zimbabwe were thinking about and I wanted to promote/validate the importance of learning indigenous languages. I engaged two friends from my tribe who are currently in the United States too and we ran a Tonga writing competition at Binga Primary School. We challenged 4th-6th grade students to write a story with the title, Simwendalike kakamutola kalonga, which translates to "the need of community during one’s life journey". We collaborated with the school’s principal and had many entries in our competition. The winners received books to read and an academic year’s worth of tuition. We are looking to expand this to also include mentorship and exposure to opportunities. 

I am grateful that I was chosen to be a part of the 2019-2020 MINN Fellowship, as it has helped me focus on my goals and think of ways to do development work better. My cohort was inspiring, challenged me to grow intellectually and professionally and was also just fun to be with. We had fun meetings that included eating Ethiopian food and experiencing the traditional coffee ceremony and charades over ZOOM (during COVID times). I will forever be indebted to the MINN community for this opportunity to grow.

Maakwe Cumanzala is currently an Economics Research Specialist. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Economics focusing on the development of tribal communities and setting up an NGO that will work on empowering tribal minority women in Zimbabwe to claim their voices, find professional networks and be proud of their cultures and identities.

MINN will be recruiting for its next cohort of Fellows later this summer. If you are interested in learning more, please inquire with [email protected] or learn more on the Fellows website. As always, thank you to the McKnight Foundation for supporting this important program!